Fighting Fascism by way of Understanding the Fascists
One of the common criticisms of advocacy films like Bully that I’ve heard and share is that the filmmakers narrowly focus on victims without ever exploring those who perpetrate. These films help along the equivocal knee-jerk reaction to oppression when we have a two-dimensional villain to point to: kids today! But why do kids bully and what are their lives like?
Answering, or at least interrogating, these questions would move us in a direction to better understand the complexities of bullying and would likely elicit a more nuanced, thoughtful reaction than the usual moralizing finger-pointing that inevitably leads to ill-suited and ineffective measures around addressing various problems from their peripheries, not the core.
Few and far between are the films that bravely explore the “other sides” of oppressive equations – digging deep into wounds, and exceptionally, into those who wound.
Such are the films of Joshua Oppenheimer, whose The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence upset documentary conventions by taking us alongside (but not necessarily on side) perpetrators of atrocious acts of torture and murder. Nick Fraser was very public about his dislike of The Act of Killing, and pronounced the culture supporting it as somehow complicit, writing that in the West, we love impunity (the perpetrators in Oppenheimer’s films are depicted as living free lives, indeed some even enjoying power and privilege, despite their crimes).
But I disagree with this assertion. We do not all love impunity. Many of “us” love to see wrongs righted and justice served. How many among the powerless relish representations of the powerful getting away with their rapacious and horrendous acts without repercussions?
There is something else that we, as audiences, might love. I have written elsewhere that one aspect of a culture of liberalism found here in this part of the world (North America) is immunity. Audiences are encouraged through mainstream commercial media storytelling and image-producing to not feel implicated in oppressive acts and structures. It is easier to finger-point and go to sleep after the movie knowing that we have nothing to do with x crime or y systemic dysfunction or z atrocity.
Thus the standard, with noted exceptions, is on cinematic representations of victims where the supporting role of the perpetrator is a two-dimensional, quick register of instrumental abject dysfunction/degradation. This isn’t to say we need less documentaries privileging the perspectives and experiences of victims, I just think we need more films doing something different.
With all this in mind, Beata Bubenec’s documentary God’s Will is a welcome departure from the norm. Bubenec, a disciple of the documentary school of Marina Razbezhkina, deeply immerses herself in the world of Russian Orthodox fanatics in Moscow, whose hate-fuelled ideology finds a popular target in that country’s LGBTQ community. It is a difficult film to watch, as the protagonist Enteo spews absurd homophobic rhetoric and queer folks are attacked and beaten on the streets (Bubenec’s camera doesn’t capture a lot of the impact of such violence on the victims, but the powerful Olya’s Love serves as a fitting companion film to God’s Will – a film that compassionately features the perspective of the embattled and brave LGBTQ activists who fight the fascists).
God’s Will ultimately charts a fringe fascist group’s rise to the centre of a virulently homophobic “new normal” in Russia, deftly timed with that country’s draconian legislation against so-called “gay propaganda.”
Seeing these young folks in their everyday, where they aren’t the bogeyman hiding in shadows, then alternating into hateful, violent oppressive activists, is a disturbing, disgusting and disquieting story to encounter. But it’s one that brings us closer to understanding the people behind oppression as well as the culture and society in which they are able to gain legitimacy and power.